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A Response to McAfee: No, the “Environmental Kuznets Curve” Won’t Save Us


A number of people have asked me to respond to a piece that Andrew McAfee wrote for Wired, promoting his book, which claims that rich countries – and specifically the United States – have accomplished the miracle of “green growth” and “dematerialization”, absolutely decoupling GDP from resource use. I had critiqued the book’s central claims here and here, pointing out that the data he relies on is not in fact suitable for the purposes to which he puts it.

In short, McAfee uses data on domestic material consumption (DMC), which tallies up the resources that a nation extracts and consumes each year. But this metric ignores a crucial piece of the puzzle. While it includes the imported goods a country consumes, it does not include the resources involved in extracting, producing, and transporting those goods. Because the United States and other rich countries have come to rely so heavily on production that happens in other countries, that side of resource use has been conveniently shifted off their books.

In other words, what looks like “green growth” is really just an artifact of globalization. Given how much the U.S. economy relies on globalization, McAfee’s data cannot be legitimately compared to U.S. GDP, and cannot be used to make claims about dematerialization. If McAfee wants to compare GDP to domestic resource consumption, then he needs to first subtract the share of US GDP that is derived from production that happens elsewhere. He does not. Nor is this possible to do.

Ecological economists have been aware of this problem for a long time. To correct for it, they use a more holistic metric called “raw material consumption,” or Material Footprint, which fully accounts for materials embodied in trade.

…click on the above link to read the rest of the article…

Vaclav Smil. Making the modern world: materials and dematerialization

Vaclav Smil. Making the modern world: materials and dematerialization

Preface.  I can’t believe I read this book, it is just a long litany of the  gigantic amounts of materials we exploit, with no analysis, implications, or the meaning of what impact this will have on the planet.

I certainly don’t expect anyone to read even this shortened version of his book, but it might be worthwhile to skim for an idea of how much material we’re consuming.

As I point out in my review of the United Nations 2016 report Global material flows and resources productivity” here, in order to accommodate an additional 2 billion people in 2050, material consumption will need to nearly triple to 180 billion tonnes of materials, almost three times today’s amount. If 180 billion tonnes grows in the future at a 5% compound rate, in 497 years the entire earth will be consumed, all 5.972 x 1021 tonnes of it, and we’ll be floating in outer space.

After reading this book, it’s hard to believe there’s anything left to exploit, though here it is 5 years later and the earth is still being pillaged.  But from Smil’s gargantuan numbers and the exponential exploitation of just about everything, clearly this will end badly.  The issue of peak sand has been in the news more frequently lately, which is essential for civilization to make concrete, computer chips, solar PV, and fracking.

Smil covers a wide range of materials that are essential to civilization that you may not have thought much about, and all the myriad uses of silicon, plastics, nitrogen, aluminum, steel, hydrogen, ammonia, cement, and more.  All of them made possible by oil.  All of them essential for civilization, so if one fails….(Liebig’s law of the minimum).

 …click on the above link to read the rest of the article…

Olduvai IV: Courage
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Olduvai II: Exodus
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